DARPA kicks off $2m Grand Challenge focused on intelligently splitting up radio spectrum

DARPA has a new Grand Challenge underway, but it’s not an automation moonshot like the self-driving car challenges of the early 2000s or the recent (and hilarious) Robotics Challenge. The Defense Department’s R&D wing wants to revolutionize something with a bit less sex appeal, but plenty of real-world applications: radio frequency spectrum splitting.

The Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, which DARPA has cleverly abbreviated SC2, is about getting the billions and billions of wireless devices out there to play nice together rather than fight for space in the increasingly crowded RF landscape. Seriously, check out that cool chart at the top (much bigger version at DARPA’s site if you want to print out the poster – 56k warning): everything is spoken for right up to the border with microwave frequencies, and more gadgets are crowding into each one daily.

darpa_logo“The current practice of assigning fixed frequencies for various uses irrespective of actual, moment-to-moment demand is simply too inefficient to keep up with actual demand and threatens to undermine wireless reliability,” said William Chappell, director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office, in a DARPA press release.

The solution? Well, someone else has to figure that part out. That’s the point of these challenges. It could be you, assuming you’re a world class, multidisciplinary team of engineers!

Leverage all that hot new tech: AI, machine learning, hyper-miniaturized transceiver arrays (I made that one up, but it sounds plausible). Just come up with something and bring your best game to DARPA’s record-size wireless testbed, which it plans to call the “Colosseum.”

Pretty bombastic name for a glorified anechoic chamber, but it should actually be a cool environment to test in. The researchers will be able to simulate radio-saturated environments like cities and battlefields to see how competitors’ systems function.

The Challenge was announced at the International Wireless Communications Expo in Las Vegas, and Chappell offered more details at the Dynamic Spectrum Sharing Summit, a separate but nearby event that seems tailor-made for talking about this particular challenge.

No rush on getting your system ready: 2017 will see the first of three year-long phases, paring down the competition to teams that will duke it out in the Colosseum sometime in early 2020. Future updates can be found at — where else — spectrumcollaborationchallenge.com.